Salt of the Earth

Power to the People

Salt of the Earth

Power to the People

I first visited Bolivia in 1995 on the first of two mountaineering expeditions to the Cordillera Real. In many ways, Bolivia hasn’t changed much since then. The vast majority of its population is still indigenous and poor. But when we crossed from Peru into Bolivia in late September, we realized that Bolivia was different from the country that I had visited 25 years before. For the last 14 years, Bolivia had experienced economic and political stability and relatively low inflation under the leadership of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Gone were the days of nightly curfews in La Paz and regular blockades on roads throughout Bolivia. Or so we thought.

Lake Titicaca, the Birthplace of Andean Civilization

We began our trip in Copacabana, a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Using Copacabana as a base, we explored Lake Titicaca, including Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). In Andean mythology, Lake Titicaca was the place where Andean civilization emerged from the waters and where the spirits of the dead returned to their origin. Today, Lake Titicaca is also considered by many to be the home of one of the earth’s 7 chakras.

Leah on Isla del Sol

While in Copacabana we reconnected with our overlanding soulmates, Stefan and Thomas from Switzerland. Together, we got our rigs blessed by the head priest of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, Copacabana’s 16th-century shrine. Our Lady of Copacabana is the patron saint of Bolivia so Bolivians take these ceremonies seriously. But that didn’t stop Stefan and I from flying our drones over our rigs, through an arch and over the Basilica. In retrospect, perhaps this is the reason why the ceremony didn’t work for us and two weeks later our rig was on a flatbed heading back to a mechanic in La Paz.

The city of La Paz from the altiplano above

La Paz

From Isla del Sol we headed to La Paz. For me, La Paz has always has been a relatively terrifying place to drive. The streets are narrow and super steep, the traffic is horrible and there are no rules. But when we arrived in La Paz, we recognized that things had changed. The streets were still narrow and super steep, making route selection essential. But the drivers were better and the traffic wasn’t THAT bad. Over the course of the next few days, we discovered that one of the reasons for this is the fact that Evo Morales has built a network of telefericos in La Paz, including several connecting the city of El Alto on the altiplano to the city of La Paz below. This, combined with the fact that many collectivos (community taxis) had been replaced by large buses had reduced the traffic in La Paz considerably.

Over the next few days while we got some maintenance done on our truck, we made the most of our time in La Paz, exploring its fascinating markets and neighborhoods including the Mercados de Hechicería, or witches markets. The vendors in these markets sell medicinal plants and potions and make offerings for Aymara rituals consisting of candies, dead animals and herbs. And the Yatiris (witch doctors) can help cast spells, perform rituals and provide spiritual advice.

And ingredients for her offerings

While in La Paz we also learned more about Evo Morales. There were some things we liked, including his support of Bolivia’s indigenous population. But we nevertheless recognized that something had happened to Evo Morales that we had seen happen to other “leftist” leaders in Latin America, including Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua.

A vendor at the witches market

Power had gotten to his head. Examples of this included the huge modern (and completely out of place) presidential palace in downtown La Paz. And Evo’s decision to run for a third term from 2020-2025 despite the fact that the Bolivian constitution forbid it and the fact that he had lost a referendum permitting him to do it Sometimes when you are traveling you need to trust your gut. And our gut said that the upcoming presidential elections on October 21st were going to result in protests and that we should get out of Bolivia before that.

Sajama National Park

But we still had a few weeks left before the elections so we headed to Sajama National Park. Sajama National Park is home to the Sajama Volcano, a huge volcano and, at 6,542 meters (21,463 ft), Bolivia’s highest peak. The park is a fascinating and seldom visited, offering opportunities to drive to lakes full of pink flamingos, to explore the world’s highest forest and to soak in hot springs fed by huge geyser fields. Sajama Volcano sits in the middle of the park but it is also surrounded by huge volcanoes in Chile to the south and west. One of the best parts about the park is that with the exception of a few locals and tourists in the tiny town of Sajama near the entrance of the park, we didn’t see anyone at all during our trip there. The one exception was a group of Bolivian Soldiers who cruised through our solitary campground at the edge of a huge geyser field on their way for a quick trip to patrol the Bolivian/Chilean border.

Driving through Sajama national park

Volcan Sajama with a church in the town of Sajama in the foreground

After an unplanned trip to La Paz where we finally figured out why our rear axle seal was leaking and got it fixed once and for all, we returned to the witches market to get an offering made for our rig and the rest of the trip. For less than a few dollars, we got a huge offering to Pachamama, including candies, herbs and a bit of Lama hair and meat. We were told we needed to light it on fire on an island in the middle of the sacred Salar de Uyuni to maximize it’s effect. So we rolled up and out of La Paz to the altiplano and south toward the world’s largest salt flat.

And the woman who made it for us

The damage to the train staircase that we did trying to get around the roadblock.

This guy didn’t fare so well in his attempt to get around the roadblock. I’m not sure how he missed the huge hole in the road.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the election was over a week away, the shit had already started to hit the fan and we ran into a roadblock in Oruro, a town on the way to Uyuni. After talking to (and sympathizing with) the campesinos blocking the road, we recognized that they weren’t going to let us through so we attempted to drive around it. The “detour” involved driving up and over railroad tracks. It didn’t go so well. We made it up onto the railroad tracks but smashed into a cement staircase in the process. Our truck was fine but the staircase didn’t fare as well. An hour or two and $75 later ($50 for repairing the staircase and a $25 bribe for the railroad workers) we were on our way to the next roadblock where we waited and waited until the campesinos decided it was time to take a break for dinner and we were able to make our way south.

The roadblock in Oruro. It looks tempting to hit the horn and gun it toward the campesinos but that typically results in your car getting stones or burned.

Salar De Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni is not only the world’s largest salt flat, it’s also the source of 50-70% of the world’s Lithium. In fact, a week or two before our arrival, campesinos had blocked the roads into and out of Uyuni, the gateway town to the Salar, in response to the terms of a proposed deal between the Bolivian government and a German company to mine the Lithium to create batteries. Fortunately, when we arrived the roads were open and were able to roll onto the salar where we camped and made our offering to Pachamama. With the exception of a few trucks full of tourists who we saw at the big island close to the entrance to the Salar, we had the Salar almost completely to ourselves.

A Dakar Rally monument on the salar

Our campground on the salar

After Salar de Uyuni we made a run for the Chilean border before the Bolivian election. On our way we drove past and through colorful lakes full of pink flamingos, huge geyser fields and some of the highest volcanoes on earth. There’s a reason that the famous Dakar Rally drives through this part of Bolivia and Chile every year. It includes some of the wildest roads and scenery we had ever seen. In fact the roads were so rough that they resulted in a fracture in a fuse cutting off power between our batteries and the interior of our truck. The fracture was hidden behind a bunch of other wires and fuses and took us days (without power) to find it.

San Pedro De Atacama

After Salar de Uyuni we made a run for the Chilean border before the Bolivian election. On our way we drove past and through colorful lakes full of pink flamingos, huge geyser fields and some of the highest volcanoes on earth. There’s a reason that the famous Dakar Rally drives through this part of Bolivia and Chile every year. It includes some of the wildest roads and scenery we had ever seen. In fact the roads were so rough that they resulted in a fracture in a fuse cutting off power between our batteries and the interior of our truck. The fracture was hidden behind a bunch of other wires and fuses and took us days (without power) to find it.

A road through southwestern Bolivia (it’s steeper and rougher than it looks)

A vicuña in front of the El Tatio geyser field, the world’s third largest (~80 geysers)

Protests in Chile

Historically, Chile has been one of the most economically prosperous countries in Latin America. I remember going there 25 years ago and marveling at the modernity and sophistication of Santiago. But beneath the surface, something less glamorous has been going on. Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s current president is a former supporter of Chile’s former brutal dictator Pinochet and is worth ~ $3 billion USD. Under his leadership, the government of Chile has continued to privatize many industries, leading to a growing gap between the rich and poor and increasing costs, including healthcare, transportation and water, for the middle class. Just as we were crossing the border into Chile, decades of middle class frustration boiled over and violent protests erupted in Santiago and other cities throughout Chile. In San Pedro de Atacama, the protests were non violent. But less than 30 miles away the capital of northern Chile was blocked by protests. All government offices were closed. And once again we were uncomfortable. So after a few days of exploring San Pedro de Atacama and trying unsuccessfully to obtain the required paperwork to bring Oz from Chile into Argentina, we once again made a run for the border, this time for Argentina.

After being permitted to cross the border with Oz without the required paperwork, we had a quick family celebration and drove into Argentina. As we left the beautiful landscapes and turmoil of Bolivia and Chile behind us, we recognized that we had unfinished business in both countries and vowed to return to the region someday soon.

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